President Benigno Aquino 3rd withdrew from attending the China-Association of Southeast Asian Nations Expo 2013 (Caexpo) because of “concerns” and “conditions” laid down by Beijing that may affect the Philippines’ “national interest.”
Raul Hernandez, Foreign Affairs spokesman, said in a press briefing that there were “subsequent concerns and conditions to the President’s attendance” coming from China.
“Such conditions were absolutely inimical to our national interest. To avoid embarrassment on the Chinese side, we will not state these conditions,” he said.
The official referred further questions regarding the botched plan of Mr. Aquino to visit Nanning, China, where the 10th Caexpo will be held, to Beijing’s ambassador to Manila Ma Keqing.
Hernandez maintained that these concerns and conditions were relayed to them by at least three sources from the Chinese Foreign Ministry, and that these should not be made public and should only be discussed at the ministerial level.
These conditions were then confirmed by two foreign ministers at their meeting in Beijing on August 28 (Wednesday). Reports said it was also at this juncture that Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario was told that Trade Secretary Gregory Domingo should be the one to represent the Philippines at the trade show.
The Philippines is the country of honor at the 10th Caexpo. Traditionally, ever since the mechanism was introduced in 2007 during the 4th Caexpo, the head of state of the country of honor attends the event.
Asked if the President was directly invited by China, Hernandez said the invitation was for the Philippines to send a “high-level delegation” to the Caexpo. Leaders of the Asean, the official added, also urged Manila to send its highest official.
In diplomatic terms, “high level” refers to officials from the cabinet secretaries to the vice president. The president, the highest official, requires a direct invitation from the head of state of the host government.
Mr. Aquino was never given a direct invitation from Chinese President Xi Jinping. But being the 10th Caexpo’s country of honor, sources said it would be a sign of goodwill for the President to attend the event even amid the territorial issues between the two countries.
Hernandez said Mr. Aquino “stood firm in the defense of the country’s national interest” in canceling the trip to Nanning. He added the department advised the President in a “timely and confidential” manner about the trip not pushing through.
These are contrary to a Vera Files report published on The Manila Times on Monday which said Mr. Aquino was the last to know about his trip to China being canceled. It added that the President even boasted to the Vietnamese defense minister last week that he will be leaving for China today (Tuesday).
But as early as August 23, reports said the Chinese government had already relayed information that they were not prepared to welcome Mr. Aquino since arrangements for his trip there were never finalized.
The report added that it was Foreign Affairs Undersecretary Evan Garcia who was tasked to handle the arrangement for the event, but he never got back to Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin or to the Chinese ambassador.
Liu and Garcia had a meeting on August 9 in Hong Kong to talk about Mr, Aquino’s trip to Nanning, capital of Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region. The DFA official promised to give “feedback” regarding the plans, but he was otherwise reportedly preoccupied in a later trip to Bangkok.
The 10th Caexpo will be held from September 3 to 6.
This year also marks the Philippines-China Years of Friendly Exchanges, a joint initiative by the two countries “to encourage more people-to-people exchanges in order to strengthen understanding and mutual trust between them.”
Last year, during the 9th Caexpo, when Myanmar was the country of honor, it was Interior and Local Government Secretary Mar Roxas who attended in behalf of President Aquino. He was received by Xi, then vice president and now the leader of more than 1.2 billion Chinese.
Mr. Aquino’s last visit to China was in 2011 when he met outgoing President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao. That was before the two-month naval standoff at the Scarborough (Panatag) Shoal, which triggered tensions between Manila and Beijing.
Since Xi became president of Asia’s largest economy, he has met with all the region’s leaders except for Mr. Aquino. A bilateral meeting was sought during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) in Vladivostok, Russia last year but it never took place.
The exchanges in the Caexpo are expected to create business opportunities for enterprises that can promote and deepen strategic partnerships between China and the Asean member-nations.
Asean is composed of the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar and Brunei Darussalam.
Four of the 10-member block are claimants to the resource-rich region that Beijing claims in whole. Aside from the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei Darussalam also have claims on the territories.
The once friendly relations between Manila and Beijing took a dive when a naval standoff ensued last year. The Philippines, early this year, brought the dispute before the International Tribunal of the Law of the Sea (Itlos).
China refused to participate in the arbitral proceedings, but the Philippines is adamant the case can move on without Beijing.
Manila hopes the tribunal can invalidate Beijing’s nine-dash line.
Bernice Camille V. Bauzon